Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #8

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
Epic Fail?
by Professor Tom Flynn

Epic Illustrated 1
March 1980
Cover Art by Frank Frazetta

“The Answer”
Story by Stan Lee
Art by John Buscema and Rudy Nebres

“Home Spun”
Story and Art by Wendy Pini

Story and Art by Leo Duranona

“For the Next Sixty Seconds”
Story and Art by Bob Layton

“Metamorphosis Odyssey: Aknaton”
Story and Art by Jim Starlin

“Lullaby of Bedlam”
Story and Art by Ray Rue

Story and Art by Mirko IIić

Story and Art by Ernie Colon

Story and Art by Arthur Suydam

“Metamorphosis Odyssey: Za!”
Story and Art by Jim Starlin

“Metamorphosis Odyssey: Juliet”
Story and Art by Jim Starlin

Story and Art by Carl Potts

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, Marvel began to exert a stranglehold on the comic book industry, slowly and surely leaving the Distinguished Competition in the rearview mirror in terms of both sales and status. But the powers that used to be were still not satisfied, soon setting their sights on another slice of the already stuffed newsstand pie: Creepy, Eerie, and other black-and-white magazines published by Warren. Promising buckets of blood and bits of boobs, these releases were unencumbered by the restrictions of the Comic Code Authority stamp of approval.  

It’s not that Marvel didn’t already have magazine experience. In 1964, they launched Monsters to Laugh With, a 36-page, black-and-whiter with the cover price of 25¢, more than double the cost of a regular 12¢ color comic. The magazine was filled with photos from old horror movies — mostly Universal fare — with supposedly humorous captions supposedly written by Stan the Man. After the third issue, the name was changed to Monsters Unlimited. I have never seen a copy, but it sounds horrendous: which it probably was since the whole shebang was cancelled after issue #7 in 1966. Marvel actually resurrected the creaky concept in 1972, with Monster Madness, a 60¢ magazine that lasted for just three issues.

Then, in July of 1968, the House of Ideas gave it another shot. But this time, they stepped up to the plate with their heaviest hitter, the webslinger himself, releasing The Spectacular Spider-Man, a 35¢, 68-page black-and-white magazine. The main story, “Lo, This Monster,” was written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita with inks by Jim Mooney. There was also a back-up piece that retold Spidey’s origin by Lee, Larry Lieber and Bill Everett. The Marvel University review wasn’t very positive and the magazine sold poorly, lost in the glut. But that didn’t stop Marvel from publishing The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 in November of the same year. Returning Stan and Jazzy John, this one was printed in full color — perhaps Lee thought the krazy kids were turned off by the somber scheme of the first issue. Plus, instead of the generic villain of the premiere, Peter Parker’s most notorious foe, the Green Goblin, was on hand this time. But these improvements didn’t boost the magazine’s fortunes and The Spectacular Spider-Man was finally put to rest. However, Marvel was far from done with its full-size experiment.

In May 1971, Savage Tales appeared, headlined by another top seller, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Priced at 50¢ and offering 68 pages, the premiere issue was a bit of a mixed bag. While it did include the excellent Roy Thomas/Barry Smith “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and the debut appearance of Man-Thing, the rest of the stories — including a routine but foretelling Ka-Zar adventure and the often-reprinted “The Fury of the Femizons” — were generally bland. Readers must have agreed since the magazine was immediately cancelled. However, Savage Tales was raised from the dead in October of 1973 and would continue on until #11 (July 1975). Issues #2 and #3 featured what I consider Marvel’s ultimate achievement in the ’70s, the two-part “Red Nails” by the Rascally One and Not-Yet-Windsor Smith. With contributions by Gil Kane, Neal Adams and Jim Starlin, the quality of the lead Conan stories was remarkably high. But, after the Cimmerian — and Roy Thomas — jumped to The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian magazine in August 1974, the drab Ka-Zar became the headliner with issue #6 (September 1974). Needless to say, things unraveled quickly.

While the aforementioned Monster Madness returned and quickly went in ’72, the floodgates opened in 1973. In quick succession, Marvel began publishing the Mad Magazine-rip off Crazy; one issue of the prose digest Haunt of Horror, which would reappear in 1974 in a comic format; Dracula Lives!, a stand-alone companion to The Tomb of Dracula; Monsters Unleashed, an anthology title featuring Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night and Frankenstein’s Monster; Tales of the Zombie, starring an undead character originally created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1953; and, finally, as if anyone needed another blood-sucking black-and-whiter, Vampire Tales. Except for Crazy, which continued on until 1983, none of these efforts survived beyond 1975, most lasting only a dozen or so issues. I’d be surprised if a single professorial tear was shed over any of these cancellations.

Marvel continued to crank ’em out in 1974. The underground-styled Comix Book lasted three issues — for some resin-soaked reason, Kitchen Sink Press revived it in 1976 for two more. Next up was Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, a not-so-fancy-footed attempt to cash in on the current “chopsocky” craze. The martial arts mag starred a mixed-bag of Shang Chi, The Sons of the Tiger, Iron Fist and others. By the way, I was completely mystified by the Kung Fu explosion during this era: call me a philistine, but did Bruce Lee actually make a good movie? Anyways, Deadly Hands had a pretty decent stretch for a Marvel magazine, lasting until February 1977 and 33 issues — each one viciously ravaged by the scornful reviews of Dean Pete. We also had the introduction of Monsters of the Movies, a Famous Monsters of Filmland pastiche that limped to eight issues; Professor Joe’s beloved Planet of the Apes, another fairly successful title that Ma, Ma-ed all the way to #29 (February 1977); and the previously mentioned The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian, Marvel’s best and longest running black-and-white magazine, which hacked its way to 1995. By Crom.

1975 saw the debut of Doc Savage, which pulped out eight issues; Gothic Tales of Love, another prose magazine that lost its romance after three doomed releases — as did Kull and the Barbarians, a title that focused on other Robert E. Howard characters besides Conan. We also had Masters of Terror, a reprint series that terrorized no one for two issues, and the anthology title Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, enjoyed by Professor Gilbert through its six-issue run. The year also saw the introduction of Marvel Preview, a showcase book that spotlighted Blade, Dominic Fortune, Santana, and others not popular enough to warrant their own color comic. Of note, #11 featured the first union of the legendary X-team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin and Tom Orzechowski on a rather unremarkable Star-Lord story. Preview would also be one of the few magazines to outlast Marvel University, running until August 1980 when it was rebranded Bizarre Adventures and continued on until February 1983.

The one-shot Marvel Super Action, featuring the Punisher, Dominic Fortune, the Huntress aka Mockingbird, and Doug Moench and Mike Ploog’s first “Weirdworld” story, was the only new Marvel magazine to flounder on the stands in 1976. But two more hit the streets the following year. The Rampaging Hulk was based on an intriguing idea, filling in the “missing adventures” between the cancellation of the green goliath’s first solo series, The Incredible Hulk #6 (March 1963) and his reappearance in the pages of Tales to Astonish #59 (September 1964). That premise lasted until #10 when the series was retitled to simply The Hulk! and began to reflect the dreaded “human interest” themes currently rampant in The Incredible Hulk CBS TV show. The reboot also included the switch to the vibrant Marvelcolor, a painted technique also used in another 1977 debut, Marvel Super Special. The Specials were a mix of movie adaptations and superhero stuff: the first issue, urgh, was printed in REAL KISS BLOOD and became one of Marvel’s most profitable releases ever. Both the Hulk! and Marvel Super Special outlasted MU’s curriculum, plodding on until June 1981 and November 1986 respectively. 

As Marvel University began to wind down in the tail end of 1979, two more magazines confusingly appeared. After The Tomb of Dracula and Howard the Duck were cancelled, someone somewhere decided to resurrect both series in the flagging black-and-white magazine format — using basically the same creative teams that saw the color comics to their conclusion. Not surprisingly, Drac’s mag got the stake after only six issues while Howard’s would waddle off after nine. Though they both lasted beyond MU’s December 1979 shutdown: that’s something at least.
While I might have missed a few, The House of Ideas published 24 magazines from 1964 to December 1979, the last month covered by Marvel University. When 1980 began, only five of them were still in circulation. Well, seven if you count the dead-on-arrival Dracula and Duck newcomers. Not a very good success rate. But still they forged on. During the fall of ’79, ads for something called Odyssey — “The Next Plateau!” — began to appear in the still-standing magazines I covered. What the heck was this, I wondered, not remembering anything with that title. But, while reviewing The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #45 (October 1979), the lightbulb went on with page 62:

It seems that Marvel announced Odyssey, their latest and greatest magazine to be eventually cancelled, before someone bothered to check if the name was already used. And it was. By at least seven other publications in print at the time. So, Epic it was and the promotional ads were tweaked. Soon after, the hyperbole machine known as Stan’s Soapbox went into hyperdrive, assaulting the readers of Marvel’s color comics with news of the next big thing that couldn’t be missed. Simply put, Epic Illustrated was promised to be the most mind-blowing magazine ever — and then some.

Basically a Heavy Metal knockoff, Epic Illustrated debuted during a rather tumultuous time in the history of comics. Talent was jumping back and forth between Marvel and DC, looking for the better deal. Personally, it felt that more people were abandoning the former for the latter — and were immediately branded as traitors in my book. Losing George Perez to the enemy was particularly galling. The New Teen Titans could eat my crap. In hindsight, it’s totally understandable why Gorgeous George would jump to DC for a fatter paycheck. From Day One, Marvel’s employees operated under a “Work for Hire” contract, freelancers paid for the amount of work they could churn out. Plus, the publisher owned everything the writer or artist created, from new characters to the finished pages themselves. But, by the time Epic came out, things were beginning to change. The term “creator owned” started surfacing and, slowly but surely, creative types were gaining the rights to their ideas and illustrations — and actually sharing the profits in some cases. For all its limitations, Epic Illustrated was one of Marvel’s first forays into this sudden shift of funnybook economics.

Priced at $2.00 and running 100 pages, the premiere issue of Epic Illustrated fell considerably short of the advanced hullabaloo. Not that it is bad, simply scatter shot and uninspiring: nothing really sticks in the brain after the final page is done. However, it got off to a fabulous start. From Earl Norem to Joe Jusko, Marvel’s magazines always boasted ultra-talented cover painters. But thanks to the sterling reputation of Archie Goodwin, Epic’s editor, they managed to net the biggest fish of them all: Frank Frazetta. No small feat since Frank was always well protected by his wife, Ellie. And if you can’t get somewhat enthused by the lead story, the 8-page “The Answer,” perhaps you should depart for DC yourself. It’s a Silver Surfer/Galactus fable by Stan Lee and John Buscema, the original team on the classic four-color comic. Here, they are joined by inker Rudy Nebres, a frequent black-and-white cohort of Big John, and painter Rick Vietch, best known for his work on Swamp Thing.  While the artwork is colorfully cosmic, Stan’s story is a wisp. On a remote asteroid, the sentinel pleads for his master to reveal what is beyond the end of the universe. When Galactus states that there is no answer, the Surfer soars off to find out himself, plunging into a black hole — but when he exits the other side, the being formerly known as Norrin Radd finds himself back where he started. Resigned, the Surfer concludes that the answer lies within us. Uh, OK.

Next up is another 8-pager, “Homespun” by Wendy Pini, who along with her husband Richard, created the cloying Elfquest. Tony Isabella also used them as characters in his ghastly Ghost Rider run. Now I’ve always found Wendy’s art way too cute and cartoony, and it overwhelms the somewhat interesting story. A sprite-like race called the Petalwings lives in a forbidden forest, spinning silken wrapstuff around any animal unlucky to fall asleep in their domain. Suddenly, two half-naked young lovers, Malak and Selah, burst into the woods, escaping the girl’s chieftain father, Olbar, and his men — Malak failed his trail of manhood and was judged unworthy of Selah’s hand. The youngsters soon have sex under a moss-covered tree, the hidden Petalwings oohing and ahhing. When Olbar and his troops arrive, the sprites volunteer to help the lovers and drive away the pursuers. Afterwards, Malak and Selah bed down for the night — soon to be wrapped in the deadly wrapstuff. Again, the brief proceedings are too precocious for my tastes, but Selah only wears a bikini bottom throughout and the colorwork is outstanding. 

Argentinean artist Leo Duranona, a Warren regular, contributes the 4-page “Aware.” The characters, a bald and topless woman and an astronaut wonder “What are we? Where are we?” against an ever-changing background — and they only see each other as flat lines. Yes, if you haven’t guessed, they are illustrations created by an artist’s pencil. Duranona’s art is basically black-and-white, but he adds shades of orange and some of the backgrounds are photorealistic. It’s a nice effect.

While a complete lark, Bob Larkin’s full-color, 3-page “For the Next 60 Seconds” just might be my favorite piece of the entire first issue of Epic Illustrated. As a boozing schlub watches TV, the Emergency Broadcast System test interrupts an episode of “The Honeymooners.” With the message droning on, the entire planet erupts in flames — as the burning TV continues to blare “if this had been an actual emergency…” Why did I enjoy this one so much? First, if you squint just the right way, Larkin’s art looks like the work of certified genius Drew Friedman — perhaps the highest compliment I can pay. Plus, in the second panel, there’s a fake line of dialogue from Jackie Gleason’s classic show: “Don’t touch me, Ralph, I’m sterile.” Epic #1 could have used a lot more of this subversive silliness.

Enhanced by brushes of pale colors, “Lullaby of Bedlam” is by Ray Rue: couldn’t find much info on him above and beyond credits on this and a few Heavy Metal issues. The art is quite good, with finely detailed faces — the griffin-like monster with the head of an Indian god is particularly effective. The 12-page story is strictly by-the-numbers though. Doctor David Walker enters the nightmares of his sister Emily: she is trapped within by a variety of horrific creatures. While he manages to free her, David becomes a prisoner instead, as his actual body dies from a heart attack. Again, nice phantasmagorical scenery but pretty dull overall.

“Fantasies” collects three one-pagers by Mirko IIić, “a talented Yugoslavian.” The still-living artist went on to great acclaim, becoming both a cartoonist and editor at The New York Times. He also created the title sequence for You’ve Got Mail, if that floats your boat. The stark black-and-white artwork simply screams “European,” and is excellently effective. In “History of Human Absurdity,” two futuristic soldiers hide behind a high wall. When one peeks through a bullet hole in the concrete, his brains are blown out. As IIić pulls out in the final panel, an identical wall, 60 yards or so away, hides two enemy sharpshooters: they simply wait until the holes in the opposite barrier go dark before firing. “The Victor” is a short about two men on an alien landscape. The dark-haired one moans that he has lost his happiness. The blonde gives him a small metallic ball, saying “here it is … happiness,” adding that he keeps his own behind the doorknob on his chest. Greedily, the dark one decapitates the gift giver, claiming both balls for himself. “Shakti” presents five horizontal panels, each pulling back from a magnificent white horse. There’s some very brief text explaining that the horse is not waiting for a master, but a rider to share their path. As I said, “European.” Rather enjoyed all three and amazing details come into focus the closer you look. 

The Puerto Rican artist Ernie Colon also goes totally black-and-white in “Convert,” another “you can see it coming” effort. The portly Friar Alzx, “the-man-with-direct-pipeline-to-Shamsha-Ishtar-and-Adad, gods-of-sun-and-light,” travels the universe bringing religion to the savages. When he lands on a plant inhabited by Native American-types, he proves his power by de-evolving one of the heathens back to the sperm stage. The fat friar then places a headset on a shaman and promises to reveal all he knows about his peoples’ good book, history, technology, and all the rest — afterwards, the tribesman will be ripe for conversion. But, of course, it backfires: with his new-found knowledge, the shaman soon turns Alzx’s powers against him and the friar’s head ends up on the night’s dinner buffet. Like much of what the magazine has to offer, “Convert” is fine but far from epic.

The ultra-prolific Arthur Suydam — who has Conan credits that I should seek out — checks in with the 7-page “Heads.” You could say that Suydam belongs to the Richard Corben school, but I’ve always felt that Arthur was much more … well, artistic. While every character has one, not sure why the title is “Heads.” A drug reference I guess. A muscular but mindless brute flees through lush grasslands, pursued from a distance by two fish-like reptilian creatures, one singing “Rocky Raccoon” while riding a giant frog. When the sub-human stumbles, he knocks himself unconscious, squishing the queen of a race of tiny mushroom beings.  Enraged, they drag him underground and stuff him full of spores in an attempt to grow a new queen. Just as one does, the brute wakes up and lurches forward, bursting through the soil above — frightening off his pursuers who had camped out on that very spot. Wiping the fungus from his face, he hops off on the titanic toad left behind in the panic. I liked this one, it’s beautifully stoopid. There’s an outstanding color wash on display, mostly shades of yellow. And Suydam chips in with our first penis if you are counting. 

Like Suydam, Carl Potts had a very solid comics career, though I guess he is most known as a writer. Which is a good thing, since I always found his illustrations, while professionally composed, cold and hollow. At only three pages, “Topaz” falls the flattest of any story covered. A satyr boasts to his beautiful female companion — perfectly formed breasts exposed natch — of his architectural prowess, presenting his M. C. Escher-inspired house in the last panel. And? Or better yet, why? Sure, Potts must have spent considerable time on that final illustration, but what was the point? 

Now I went a bit out of order to save the first three chapters of Jim Starlin’s “Metamorphosis Odyssey” for last: I assume that most would consider this the big-ticket item of Epic Illustrated #1. In the late ’70s, Jim left Marvel after butting heads with Editor-in-Chief Gerry Conway, taking his typewriter and pencils to DC in a huff. But two words drew him back to the fold: creator owned. “Metamorphosis Odyssey” would take nearly two years to complete, finally ending with Chapter XIV in issue #9 (December 1981) — and each splash page would include © J. P. Starlin. The placement of this issue’s three installments is peculiar: there are four stories separating Chapters I and II, but the third follows immediately after the second.

The very talky plot is propelled by the Zygoteans, a race of ruthless humanoids that jump from planet to planet, transforming the inhabitants into unquestioning slaves that strip bare their own world. The invaders then depart for their next conquest, leaving the few survivors to starve and ultimately perish in the desolation. Chapters I to III are named after the three disparate beings that join together to finally defeat the Zygoteans — at least I assume they will eventually, not having read the conclusion. First up is the man-god Lord Aknaton, the last of the Egyptian-like Orsirosians and protector of the ultimate weapon, the Infinity Horn. Chapter II introduces the powerful and primitive Za from Tyjor, a planet so bereft of life that his race has evolved into cannibalism — however, Aknaton has blessed him with an intelligence that far outstrips his kind. Finally, there is 15-year-old Juliet from Covert, Kansas, a sudden orphan after the Zygoteans invade their next target, Earth. After Aknaton and Za pick up Juliet in the Orsirosian’s pyramid-shaped ship, they all fly away to safety. From a distance, Aknaton detonates the entire nuclear stockpile on our planet, understanding that instant destruction is far better than slowly withering under Zygotean rule.

While I am far from a rabid Starlin fanatic, he’s obviously a talented artist and writer. But I found the first three chapters of “Metamorphosis Odyssey” a bit underwhelming. The art is superb and his use of monochromatic grays is very impressive. But I think Jim missed out by not using full color: the rich and detailed worlds he created would have been much more vibrant. And there’s too much somber navel gazing for my tastes. Plus, I rolled my eyes after the first few pages of “Juliet.” It opens with her family listening to news of the Zygotean invasion on the radio. After two pages of horrifying reportage on the burning of New York City and the fall of the Soviet Union, the announcer cheerily segues into “Meanwhile, on the sports scene, St. Louis clobbered …” Really? Earth is being destroyed by aliens and Major League Baseball is still rolling along? “Now up Pedro Borbon … and please ignore the deathship hovering above centerfield.”

On a related note, Starlin introduced Vanth Dreadstar in Chapter V (Epic #3, September 1980), a character that would get his own series in Epic Comics, the creator-owned imprint Marvel launched in 1982. And I must add that my digital copy of Epic Illustrated #1 was missing four articles: “The Next Plateau,” an — we must assume hysterical — editorial by Stan Lee; “Elfspire,” a preview of an upcoming text story; “Detour,” a short story by George Bush — not sure if he was H. W. or just W.; and Archie Goodwin’s “Endgame,” a 1-pager on the contributors to the first issue.

In the history of Marvel’s magazine line, Epic Illustrated had a fairly long shelf life, making it to February 1986 with issue #34: ultimately, the mediocre sales couldn’t support the high production costs. Along the way, it featured work by Roy Thomas, another defector drawn in by the creator-owned format, Steve Bissette, Samuel R. Delany, Michael Golden, Dennis O'Neil, Ken Steacy, The Brothers Hildebrandt, Neal Adams, John Bolton, Chris Claremont, Basil Wolverton, Richard Corben, Jim Steranko, and many, many more, including Barry Freakin’ Windsor-Smith. While Epic Illustrated might never have reached “The Next Plateau,” it certainly gave it a go with some of the biggest names in the game. 

Besides, is a plateau all that great? It’s basically half a mountain with a flat top. Whoopee.

In Two Weeks!
Claremont and Man-Thing
by Professor Matthew Bradley!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #7

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

Unhappy Anniversary

by Professor Tom Flynn

When Marvel University wrapped up its mission statement with December 1979, Rascally Roy Thomas was in the midst of an unbroken run of 105 Conan the Barbarian color comics and 47 The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian black-and-white magazines dating back to the debut of both series. Plus, let’s not forget that he wrote all of the assorted Giant-Sizers and Annuals that featured the Cimmerian in the ’70s. And that’s not to mention the hundreds of stories he dashed off for such books as The AvengersDaredevilFantastic FourThe InvadersThe Mighty ThorThe Uncanny X-Men, and others. But until I read one of A+ student AndyDecker’s insightful comments, I was totally unaware that Roy was less than a year away from departing Marvel for the Distinguished Competition when 1980 began. 

Why? While I’m sure that Roy has discussed his departure in the pages of Alter Ego, I don’t have access to any issues of that magazine. But I can check out the blog of — yes, I know, boo, hiss — Jim Shooter, and the former editor-in-chief offers a few posts on the subject. If you believe Shooter, which I am inclined to do on this occasion, it boiled down to Roy’s status as writer/editor. When Big Jim became EIC in January 1978, one of his first initiatives, with the blessing of Stan Lee himself, was to eliminate the writer/editor title. Now you don’t need to be “the human face, such as it was, of corporate thuggishness and intractability” or “the enemy of creators” as Gary Groth, the often nasty publisher of The Comics Journal, has called Shooter, to realize that someone editing their own writing is an extremely bad idea. Heck, just look at how many times Professor Blake bemoaned the disconnect between Marv Wolfman the writer and Marv Wolfman the editor. Perhaps disconnect is the wrong word. Let’s face it, Marv most likely never even thought of editing his own stuff. Why would he? He wrote the darn words himself so they should all be golden. Heck Marv, even William Faulkner had an editor.

But Roy was fiercely determined that no one would be in the position to edit his work. Well, besides himself that is. It’s not that he didn’t have a leg to stand on. Let’s face it, the Rascally One was the ultimate Conan authority on the staff. If not the planet. Someone like Al Milgrom is going to find a continuity error in an issue of Conan the Barbarian? I think not sir. In fact, one of the most glaring goofs in the history of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian magazine happened when Thomas didn’t get the chance to proof the cover. The headline on the front of Savage Sword #31 (July 1978) was supposed to read “Fiends of the Flame Knife!” What was printed and shipped? “Friends of the Flame Knife!” Watch out Conan! Here come the friends!

So, when Thomas’ contract came up for renewal in 1980, he refused to give up editorial duties on his titles — including, obviously, proofing cover copy — during negotiations with Shooter, even though a significant raise for basically less work and headaches was promised. When Jim wouldn’t budge, Roy jumped ship for DC, where he would go on to create such memorable characters as Captain Carrot. Sigh™. 

Now let’s circle back to AndyDecker: in his comment I referenced earlier, he mentioned that Conan the Barbarian lost it heart after Roy left. So, that brings us to this Post-Graduate Study. Not only will we take a look at Thomas’ last gasp, issue #115, coincidentally a double-sized 10th-anniversary edition, but five of the Roy-free issues that followed.

Conan the Barbarian #115
October 1980
“A War of Wizards!”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Buscema and Ernie Chan

As Conan rides towards the Shemite city of Akkharia to join the mercenary army of King Sumuabi, his horse is spooked by the sudden vision of Zukala, the Cimmerian’s old nemesis, floating in the road ahead. (“What’s that in the road, a head?”) The disembodied sorcerer promises the barbarian a fortune in gold and women if he will complete a quest. Conan flatly refuses and continues on. When he reaches Akkharia, the Cimmerian discovers that the city’s hotels are filled with other swords-for-hire and he is forced to sleep in a stable. After a few hours of rest, he awakes to see that he is not alone in his humble accommodations: Red Sonja is standing above him, also there to sell her razor-sharp services to Sumuabi.

The two compatriots head out for breakfast, soon coming across a huge temple of Ibis. Conan is surprised since he thought that Karanthes, the jovial wizard who sent them both on a wild-goose chase for the missing page of the Book of Skelos years ago, was the last Ibis-Priest alive. Sonja shrugs and suggests that perhaps Karanthes found his way to Akkharia afterwards. While they eat their meager meal in a tavern, the She-Devil begins to tease the Cimmerian about the missing Bêlit, naively joking that perhaps she left him for a tree-ape with bigger muscles. The barbarian angrily strikes the Hyrkanian and a short skirmish breaks out, with Conan eventually disarming the woman. He then reminds Sonja about her vow never to sleep with a man unless he defeated her in combat: she reluctantly submits and allows herself to be carried to a room on the second floor. But before Conan can claim his carnal prize, Sonja insults Bêlit again — the barbarian snarls that his beloved pirate is dead and storms away.

Overcome by grief, Conan is once again confronted by Zukala’s mystical visage. This time the sorcerer claims that he can raise Bêlit from the dead if the Cimmerian delivers Karanthes to his faraway stronghold. It seems that Zukala was the advisor to King Sumuabi until the Ibis-Priest arrived in Akkharia and usurped his position. Haunted by fresh memories of his deceased lover, Conan accepts the sorcerer’s deal this time and strides off to the temple of Ibis — unaware that he is being followed by Red Sonja. There, Karanthes awaits, seemingly knowledgeable of the barbarian’s intentions. The red-headed Hyrkanian soon arrives and moves to defend the priest. Suddenly, Karanthes tosses a potion in an attempt to disable the Cimmerian: but his aim is off and Sonja is knocked unconscious instead. Conan tosses her over his shoulder and binds the priest’s hands — not noticing when the wizard conceals his powerful Ibis-Staff within his robes.

Days later — with Red Sonja remaining asleep the entire time — they finally arrive at Zukala’s massive fortress, a foreboding structure carved into an ancient, towering tree. When Zukala reveals that the unconscious Red Sonja must die for Bêlit to live again, the barbarian hesitates and changes his mind. Forcing the issue, the sorcerer conjures his terrifying demon Jaggta-Noga to bend the Cimmerian’s will. But Karanthes reveals the Ibis-Staff and banishes the horned horror back to its own dark dimension. Conan, sword drawn, advances on  Zukala, forcing himself forward even as the sorcerer’s flashing spells rip bloody welts across his skin. When he gets close enough, the barbarian manages to behead the villain and finally succumbs to his wounds, falling near death to the floor.

Hours later, Conan is revived by Red Sonja gently washing his face with a cloth imbued with one of Karanthes' life-savings potions. The Cimmerian invites the sexy swordswoman to ride with him to further adventures but she regretfully declines, fearful that she will eventually become one of the brawny hunk’s playthings instead of a true warrior. After Sonja rides off, Karanthes confesses to Conan that he willingly let himself be kidnapped so that he could be taken to Zukala: the minor wizard would be no match for his superior powers. Plus, if Zukala’s resurrection spell had actually worked, Bêlit would have returned as a living corpse, her body ravaged by the year spent in her underwater tomb. 

For a big anniversary “event,” Roy’s original story checks all the correct boxes. We have our big guest star, Red Sonja, as well as a variety of other characters brought back from earlier, classic issues. Zukala and his demon Jaggta-Noga return after debuting in Conan the Barbarian #5 (May 1971) — the sorcerer would appear without his sinister sidekick in issues #14 and #15 (March/May 1972), the two-parter featuring Elric of Melnibone and co-written by Michael Moorcock. And Karanthes, one of the few wizards who never meant the Cimmerian any harm, was taken from the outstanding, five-issue Conan/Red Sonja crossover that ran over Conan the Barbarian #66 to #68 (September/October/November 1976) and Marvel Feature #6 and #7 (September/November 1976). It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story, with Karanthes basically leading Conan around by the nose until all the pieces fall into place and his outmatched rival Zukala can be defeated. The Ibis-Priest also claims to have influenced Conan’s life in the past, causing nightmares that guided the Cimmerian down certain paths. Not sure if this is a bit of revisionist history on Roy’s part, but it didn’t raise any alarms with this reader. Unlike dirty, lying George Lucas.

Now while I’m more a fan of Frank Thorne’s artwork than of Red Sonja herself, she’s highly welcomed — plus, she hasn’t appeared in these pages since the tail end of 1976 in the crossover mentioned above. Some might call it a cop-out that when the She-Devil is finally defeated in battle her virginity is not the victim, but I buy it here. One, Conan is not the type to take advantage of a woman against her will. Shoot, Roy has him immediately storming off to another tavern where two lovely wenches are soon draped over his broad shoulders, so getting a little action has never been the barbarian’s problem. Two, Sonja’s taunts had reopened the wounds over Bêlit’s death and he was in no mood to get frisky.

Now, I covered all of The Rascally One’s Conan efforts during the 1970s, so I’ve already heaped a tremendous amount of praise on the long-running dream team of John Buscema and Ernie Chan. Needless to say, the art here is just great. Now I might be crazy, but towards the end, it looks like someone redrew Zukala’s face in a few panels. And, to me, that someone looks like Barry Smith. But don’t hold me to that.

Finally, and not surprisingly, there is no mention that this is Roy’s last issue. But, someone at Marvel did shoehorn — accidentally or not — a tribute on The Hyborian Page. Instead of the usual fan letters, we have missives from four “celebrities” saluting the 10th anniversary of the series: pulp expert Bob Weinberg, Robert E. Howard literary agent Glenn Lord and sci-fi authors Larry Niven and Geo. W. Proctor. Now none of them mention Thomas by name, or anyone else who worked on the series so far. But, by Crom, if you are praising the first decade of Conan the Barbarian, you sure are praising Mr. Roy Thomas. Bravo!

Now let’s see what happened next …

Conan the Barbarian #116
November 1980
“Crawler in the Mist!”
Story by Len Wein
Art by John Buscema and Neal Adams
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Michael Higgins and Irv Watanabe
Cover by John Buscema and Neal Adams

The post-Roy era gets off to a decidedly inauspicious start. While I haven’t previously read any of the issues covered in this study, a warning bell immediately went off when I saw Len Wein’s name in the credits since he left Marvel in 1977. Then flipping through — or, since I’m working with a digital copy, scrolling through — I began to recognize some of the artwork, especially the big reveal of the “monster.” Where had I seen that before? I’ll tells ya: in the review of the 1976 Power Records comic “Crawler in the Mist” included in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #40 (May 1979). Double sigh™. Roy’s corpse is still warm and this is what they tried to slip by fans, a reprint of the comic that came with a kiddie record? Sure, Marvel was caught off guard with his sudden departure but this is the best they could scrape together? Utter crap.

It doesn’t help that Wein’s story is pretty dire. After being bitten by a venomous snake, Conan falls unconscious in the Corinthian desert. When he comes to, he finds himself captured by the diminutive and deformed slave trader Rasto. After the Cimmerian manages to turn the table and free himself from his chains, they stop in the isolated and walled city of Kamalla for food and drink, only to find all doors locked and all windows shuttered. And for good cause: Rasto is soon dragged off by a tremendous, slug-like creature. While the barbarian manages to crush the giant gastropod with a damaged stone column, another appears. But this one begins to communicate telepathically: the first slug was his mate and she actually meant no harm. They visited Kamalla for a peaceful mission of mercy, transporting all of the city’s ill and infirm to a paradise across the universe. Heartbroken, the slug blinks away taking Rasto with him.

In the review of “Crawler in the Mist” in Savage Sword #40, it was noted that Roy was a bit dismayed that someone other than himself had written a Conan story, the only time that happened before he left Marvel. And I can see his point: this is easily the worst single issue so far in the complete run of Conan the Barbarian. Perhaps the only noteworthy point is at the beginning. When the Cimmerian recovers from the snake bite, he finds himself chained to Rasto’s wrist. Not a very smart move by the slaver: since he’s such a little runt, Conan basically swings him around, battering the man’s two subordinates. Now it’s always a treat to see Neal Adams involved, but he only inked Big John’s breakdowns so it’s basically Buscema — not that I’m complaining, the art is of high quality even though there are limited background details. The splash page of the Power Records comic was used as the cover, so John had to draw two new pages: don’t have the original to compare and I can’t spot them.

Conan the Barbarian #117
December 1980
“The Corridor of … Mullah-Kajar”
Story by Larry Hama
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Richard Parker
Cover by John Buscema

Larry Hama — who at this point I had only encountered as the sturdily mediocre penciler on the Iron Fist stories in Marvel Premiere — gets us back on track somewhat with the first “new” post-Roy Thomas story, “The Corridor of … Mullah-Kajar.” It’s far from a strong issue but a world away from the lousy bait-and-switch readers endured a month earlier. Let’s note that Louise Jones — aka Louise Simonson — was named as Editor of the series at this point. I wonder if she hit the archives and read all of Roy’s back issues or even familiarized herself with the Robert E. Howard stories? Louise would hold that title until issue #154 (January 1984) when she was replaced by … Larry Hama.

The powerful sorcerer Mullah-Kajar, high priest of Hanuman, has taken control of the Turanian outpost of Zamboula, taking an ambassador and his wife as captives before they could flee. For the price of 10,000 gold pieces, Conan and 20 soldiers are dispatched to return the couple to Turan. While his men are killed in the process, the Cimmerian manages to slip into Mullah-Kajar’s ziggurat, where he encounters a female acolyte who begins to bewitch him with horrifying visions. But the barbarian manages to blindfold the wicked woman and he forces her to lead the way to the kidnapped Turanians. Instead, she takes him to a room that’s occupied by two hideous creatures, quivering masses of tentacles. After a vicious, four-page fight, the barbarian hacks them to death. But the acolyte reveals her true form, Mullah-Kajar himself, who shows Conan that his victims were actually the Turanians he came to rescue. After assaulting the Cimmerian with more unnerving nightmares, the sorcerer vows that he “cannot be slain by the hand of a mortal man” and raises his dagger to the dazed barbarian’s neck. But Conan grabs his wrist and forces Mullah-Kajar to stab himself in the heart, killing him. 

While he does introduce an interesting new sorcerer to Conan’s rogues gallery, Hama delivers a decent but thoroughly forgettable issue. Showing he did a bit of research, Larry name checks quite a few of Robert E. Howard’s creations: the Turanians, the city of Zamboula, the monkey-god Hanuman and even Yag-kosha from “Tower of the Elephant.” But Mullah-Kajar’s nightmares don’t amount to much even though they are dispersed over eight pages. On two occasions, Conan is confronted by a corridor floating in space, its walls dotted with doors. An interesting visual but it goes nowhere. I could see if the Cimmerian was taunted to open one of the portals but even that doesn’t happen. I did get a bit of a chuckle when the barbarian kills the wizard with his own hand: hey, if a mortal can’t whack him let his own hand do the work. In all, not a bad installment but not nearly as good as any of Roy’s poorest efforts. Not that there were many of those.

Conan the Barbarian #118
January 1981
“Valley of Forever Night”
Story by J. M. DeMatteis
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by John Buscema

This issue sees the debut of J. M. DeMatteis, a former DC pinch hitter who began lengthy runs on The Defenders and Captain America in 1981: he also delivered an unbroken Conan the Barbarian streak that lasted from this one until #130 (January 1982). After J. M., Bruce Jones — a name that should be quite familiar to fans of Red Sonja — hopped on board and wrote the far majority of issues from #131 to #149 (August 1983). With #150, Dean Pete fave Michael Fleisher cranked them out until #171 (June 1985). After that, I gave up checking.

In Southwestern Shem, Conan comes across an enraged man trying to kill a pleading, robed figure: when the Cimmerian intervenes, the attacker surprisingly kills himself. The thankful victim drops her cowl to reveal that she is Jenna, the barbarian’s lover from years past — but she is ravaged by some type of leprosy. As Conan rides Jenna to the remote camp she shares with others afflicted, he begins to develop boils on his face as well. On arrival, the barbarian learns that the lepers pray to a strange being named Myya L’ RRasleff who promises eternal salvation. With Jenna in tow, the barbarian rides towards Myya’s stronghold, perched on top of a towering mountain that overlooks the camp. After defeating two guardians — a brute formed from rock and a taloned birdman — the Cimmerian faces off against his alien prey. Even though the grotesque geek protests that he is trying to free his “children” from their mortal limitations, Conan kills the creature by smashing him against The Black Jewel, the source of Myya L’ RRasleff’s powers. With Myya dead, Conan and Jenna are freed from their plague-like curse.

DeMatteis shows that he has done his homework by reaching back for the character Jenna, the duplicitous beauty from Conan the Barbarian #6 to #11 (June 1971 – November 1971). If you remember, the Cimmerian eventually tired of her shenanigans and threw her out of a window into a putrid pool of human waste. Whew! But for some reason, Big John and Ernie give her dark hair instead of her original blonde bouffant. Myya L’ RRasleff — what kind of name is that? — is quite the oddball and his story is quite convoluted. He is definitely an alien, ostracized for “crimes unsaid.” Unsaid? Why? Anyways, he landed on earth and infected a city with his black plague, making them his servants until their “conversion makes them one with the lord and master.” Not sure why he was so hard on his congregation — you know, the leprosy and all — or what the conversion would reward. DeMatteis seems unsure as well. Myya L’ RRasleff’s guardians are not very impressive. The rock-giant, who emerged from the side of the mountain with what looks like a giant schlong hanging between his legs, is killed after two pages when he’s pushed off the side of a cliff. The bird-man only lasts a handful of panels, his head smashed into a boulder. While not a complete waste of time, “Valley of Forever Night” is much too wordy and confusing to really pay off in the end. I give it a 5 out of 10 Croms.

Conan the Barbarian #119
February 1981
“The Voice of One Long Gone”
Story by J. M. DeMatteis
Art by John Buscema and Bob McLeod
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Buscema

Another one bites the dust. Didn’t realize that my extended coverage of Roy’s finale and the five issues that followed would also witness the departure of another major Conan mainstay, longtime inker Ernie Chan. After working on 63 issues, the Ernest One was replaced by the talented Bob McLeod who would last until #126 (September 1981) — it does look like Ernie would return from time to time. Loved Bob’s work with Michael Golden on The Micronauts, but here the finished art is rather lightweight and looks unfinished in places. McLeod’s strong style is only recognizable in a few close-ups. 

Bedding down for the night beside a campfire, a somber Conan tells Jenna a tale of his youth, one of Drogin, his grandfather and mentor to all ways Cimmerian. When the man became too old to pull his weight within the tribe, he walked off alone into the frigid Eiglophian Mountains to embrace death. After Conan's comely companion drifts off to sleep, Drogin amazingly appears before the barbarian, now nearly as youthful and vigorous as his grandson. Drogin convinces Conan to enter a mystic gateway that will whisk them across the world to the swamp that holds the castle of his master, the toad-like wizard Ravenna. There it is revealed that Ravenna is trapped in his stronghold — for some unexplained reason — and before Drogin died in the mountains he appeared and offered a deal: rejuvenation if the wizard could share his body and roam the world seeking adventure and the sweet fruits of womanhood. But the Cimmerian has finally grown tired of the years of endless carousing and dreams of oblivion’s peace. Eventually, Ravenna’s nefarious plot is uncovered: Conan will take Drogin’s place as his host. But before the transference can be completed, Drogin has a change of heart and saves his grandson — at the cost of his very life.

While still far from the level of The Rascally One’s consistently high quality, “The Voice of One Long Gone” is the best post-Roy issue so far. J. M. DeMatteis’s original character of Drogin is quite good and one of the few from the Cimmerian’s youth in the history of the series so far. DeMatteis continues to pepper his stories with familiar faces. To soften him up for the transference, Ravenna creates a series of visions to bedevil Conan: the elephant-headed Yag-Kosha from issue #4, a bat-like Devil-Beast of Nergal from #30, the beastly man-ape from issue #11 and, finally, Bêlit. But these cameos are a bit of a cheat: it feels like DeMatteis basically shoehorned them in to show that he knows the material. Or perhaps he wanted to remind readers of better times. Besides, Larry Hama name checked Yag-Kosha only three issues earlier. Plus, Drogin’s motives are unclear. The Cimmerian must have known that it was Ravenna’s intention to entrap his grandson but he went along with the plan step by step — until the very end that is. Which was not a surprise at all. In fact the entire plot is fairly dusty: Roy used the plot of Conan being tricked into replacing a sorcerer’s herald in the very first issue. Jenna is back to being a blonde by the way. Oh, and the obese Ravenna turns into his real form at the end, resembling the ridiculous carpet-monster from 1964’s The Creeping Terror, but with dozens of small eyes dotting his furry hide. Yeah, pretty goofy looking.

Conan the Barbarian #120
March 1981
“The Hand of Erlik”
Story by J. M. DeMatteis
Art by John Buscema and Bob McLeod
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Rick Parker
Cover by John Buscema

The last issue we will cover shows that J. M. DeMatteis has quickly settled into a rather unremarkable groove, offering another mediocre one-and-done story that is quickly forgotten after the final page is finished. Again, McLeod doesn’t bring much to the party: Buscema’s excellent base is on display but most of the panels feature uninteresting or nonexistent backgrounds. 

Conan and Jenna are still traveling the backroads of Shem when they are approached by a dandyish warrior named Vonndhar. The man proclaims that he is the herald of Erlik, the Yellow God of Death, the demon who supposedly owns Jenna’s soul, and it is now time for her to pay the piper — literally, since Vonndhar plays a flute made of bone. Though he is beginning to tire of Jenna’s antics, the Cimmerian defends her honor, driving his sword through the man’s chest. But Vonndhar proves immortal and survives without a scratch. During the fight, Jenna sneaks off and is soon captured by a group of brigands: when the barbarian and the herald arrive on the scene, Conan soon kills their leader and takes command. With a bemused Vonndhar tagging along, the Cimmerian and his new men attack a royal pay wagon. Jenna is critically injured during the battle and the demonic Erlik soon appears to claim her soul. But Vonndhar has fallen in love with the woman during their travels: he gives up his eternal life so that Jenna can live. Disgusted, Conan rides off leaving Jenna to her own devious devices.

Since Vonndhar starts giving Jenna the googly eyes about halfway through, DeMatteis’ twist at the end was hardly a surprise — though most would have seen it coming regardless. Why Jenna owes Erlik her soul is never explained which seems totally lazy. You would assume that Conan would at least ask the reason at some point. The brigands are introduced quite early in the story and they seem to be included just so DeMatteis can stretch his concept to fill the requisite pages: there’s not an interesting one among the slovenly bunch. While only his head and hands are shown, Erlik looks sinisterly similar to Mephisto, a character Big John has illustrated on many occasions, including, groan, Marvel Super Special #1 featuring Kiss. Gotta get a Kiss crack in there somehow! I had a very hard time swallowing The Hyborian Page: the letters are filled with praise for issue #116, the Power Records reprint. You got to be serious. Shamefully, the replies position the issue as a new work, even praising Len Wein’s handling of the character. By Crom, that calls for another sigh™.

And there we have it. It’s easy to see that AndyDecker was on the mark with his comment about how Conan the Barbarian lost its “heart” after Roy Thomas left. It’s not that the five following issues were terrible — though the disgraceful Power Records reprint sticks in my craw — but they all felt a bit hollow. Sure, Larry Hama and J. M. DeMatteis showed they were game by referencing such Robert E. Howard/Roy Thomas characters as Yag-Kosha and Jenna, but the rhythm was definitely off. Didn’t mention it previously, but Conan talks way too much and often in a strangely poetic way. Plus, they completely abandoned what made this series so addictive. While Roy’s first few issues were one-and-done adventures, he soon began to favor lengthy arcs, filled with major casts of characters and intertwining plots. He worked hard to entertain the zombies. Roy’s Conan the Barbarian was a series of epics that demanded the attention of readers — and richly rewarded them in turn. After he left, for the first five issues covered here at least, it quickly became a series of run-of-the-mill single-issue stories that broke no new ground or offered anything remarkable. By Crom, glad Marvel University ended its run before writing about Conan became a chore. 

By the way, if I am off base about the reason Roy left Marvel, feel free to give me an earful.

In Two Weeks:
Professor Tom weighs in on
the merits and demerits of
Epic Illustrated #1!